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Tribe members, ending encampment, demand state stands down on billboard suit

Margo Thunderbird of the Warriors of the Sunrise

Margo Thunderbird of the Warriors of the Sunrise spoke at the group's Canoe Place Sovereignty camp in Southampton on Monday. Credit: Newsday/Mark Harrington

It was a rainy day 23 at Sovereignty Camp, and Shinnecock tribal elder Margo Thunderbird lit another cigarette while a blackened coffee pot percolated on a smoky fire. Four other Warriors of the Sunrise sat with her Monday, staring into the fire, as Thunderbird, 68, spoke with smoky-voiced conviction about the tribe’s grievances and the impacts of the state’s failure to address them.

"What we’re about here is our right to conduct our business on our own land as a sovereign nation," said Thunderbird, daughter of Henry Bess Jr., the legendary Chief Thunderbird.

The Warriors of the Sunrise is an activist group of Shinnecock Nation tribal members and supporters who have spent most of the past month encamped on tribal land just north of Sunrise Highway in Southampton to protest what they see as state roadblocks to their economic development efforts.

The group's list of grievances is topped by a demand that New York State and its Department of Transportation drop a lawsuit that seeks removal of the tribe’s digital billboard monument, which towers 61 feet over the highway’s south lanes just before the Shinnecock Canal at Canoe Place. The tribe says the billboard's advertising sales are a needed revenue generator.

A judge in May denied the state’s request for a preliminary injunction to force the tribe to remove the structure, provided the tribe "constructed and are operating … in compliance with appropriate structure and other safety standards," which the tribe said it was. Shinnecock Nation lawyers have since made two offers to settle the suit, with the state requesting the tribe remove the billboard before it would negotiate, said Tela Troge, a Warriors and nation member.

"The state is just trying to deplete us of all recourses and hope we stop fighting but we never will," Troge said.

Thunderbird had a more direct message to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

"Drop the lawsuit, I mean right now. It’s just mean-spirited," Thunderbird said.

A state DOT spokesman, Joseph Morrissey, said, "We have no comment on this matter due to pending litigation."

Cuomo’s office previously said, "We have and will continue to work with the Shinnecock Nation on a host of issues they have raised with the governor’s office."

Among the Warriors' supporters is Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters, who said he’s backing the group and the Shinnecock Nation in what he called a "frivolous" lawsuit by the state. Waters said he plans to help at a free food distribution being held by the Warriors at the rest-stop beside their encampment on Wednesday. It starts at noon.

"My view is Albany should ... stop using the power they have here to prevent the people of the Shinnecock Nation from making a living," he said.

Around 20 tribal members and supporters have remained in tents at the camp, and up to 50 have come to protest, Troge said.

The camp, started Oct. 31, will continue until Thanksgiving Day, which the Warriors consider a day of mourning. "We’re not trying to take their assets," Thunderbird said. "This is about them respecting us as a sovereign people and nation. You’re on our land. Pay your rent."

Thunderbird said all are welcome at Wednesday's food distribution.

"We welcomed the settlers" around 1640, when they first landed in what is now Southampton, she said. "There was no war between them and the Shinnecock people. But bad behavior can no longer be tolerated."

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